It’s the summer for fictional bookworms who fall into fairy tales.
First came Between the Lines by Jodi Picoult, the best-selling novelist, in collaboration with her 16-year-old daughter, Samantha van Leer. They imagine a girl who not only falls in love with a fairy-tale prince but also ends up — physically — in the pages of the story.
Now comes The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, the debut novel by Chris Colfer, best known for his role as Kurt Hummel in the hit TV series Glee. Based on an idea he had when he was 10 — Colfer is now all of 22 — it stars 12-year-old twins who fall into the pages of their grandmother’s treasured fairy-tale collection.
The Land of Stories works best as a comic and ironic adventure. But it lacks the intellectual playfulness of Between the Lines, which yanks readers back and forth between reality and fantasy and explores the relationship between characters and their readers.
Colfer is aiming more for laughs while paying homage to the original fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, not their watered-down movie and TV versions.
His main characters couldn’t be more different. Alex is her class’s star student, “the definition of bookworm.” Her brother, Conner, is the class clown who has trouble in school, “mostly trouble staying awake.”
A year earlier, their lovable father, a bookstore owner, died in a car accident. (Parents tend to have high fatality rates in fairy tales.) Their also-lovable mother, a nurse, works overtime to make ends meet.
That world is left behind as the twins give new meaning to the idea of getting lost in a good book. They land in a series of kingdoms where Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White have become queens and married King Charming.
“Wait,” Conner asks, “all these queens are married to the same guy?”
Of course not, he’s told. There are three King Charmings. They’re brothers.
“Of course,” Alex says. “They all married Prince Charming! There’s more than one! How come I never thought about that?”
But wait, there’s more in Colfer’s magic kingdoms than Disney has dreamt of.
Goldilocks, a fugitive wanted for “burglary, thievery and running from the law,” and a fashion-minded Red Riding Hood are vying for the attentions of Jack, formerly of the Beanstalk. Out to impress Jack, Red Riding Hood “was showing too much skin, wearing too much makeup and was dressed too well for the middle of the day,” which may be too much information for Colfer’s youngest readers.
The Evil Queen, aka Snow White’s wicked stepmother, has escaped her jail cell, after hissing that “a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.”
To return home to Mom, Alex and Conner must collect eight fairy-tale collectibles, including Cinderella’s slipper and a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, while being chased by a pack of wolves.
At 438 pages, the novel could have used tighter editing. The ending comes as no surprise but leaves room for a sequel. As Alex says farewell, she wipes away tears but can’t help smiling, “because she knew in her heart it wasn’t ready good-bye.”
In fairy tales, is it ever?